Fwd: Intel, Once Again, Plans to Remake Radio Circuitry
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Technology News and Insights
* FEBRUARY 19, 2012, 12:06 PM
Intel, Once Again, Plans to Remake Radio Circuitry
By Don Clark
Intel has few peers when it comes to driving digital technology. Now the
Silicon Valley giant believes it has penetrated one of the last bastions where
another approach still prevails: radio.
The company is using a technical conference in San Francisco this week to
disclose progress in designing new versions of key radio components that are
typically built using analog technology and different materials than the silicon
used to create most digital chips.
It’s referring to things like power
amplifiers, transmitters, modulators and other “radio frequency” components,
often collectively described by the initials RF.
“We are getting close to having the complete kit of digital RF building
blocks for these radios,” says Justin Rattner, Intel’s chief technology
Why should we care? It all comes back to Moore’s Law, the technology tenet
Intel rides for all its worth.
The relentless pace of transistor miniaturization that Intel co-founder
Gordon Moore first described in 1965 keeps bringing us more inexpensive and
useful microprocessors and memory chips, not to mention devices like laptop
computers and iPhones.
If RF circuitry can be produced in the same chip
factories–with the same ever-declining cost per function–radios used to send
data over networks like 4G or Wi-Fi can be much less expensive and ubiquitous,
A logical extension of this approach is to place RF components alongside
others on a chip, saving space and energy and cost in products like smartphones.
One of Intel’s papers at the International
Solid-State Circuits Conference http://isscc.org/
describes such a creation, a chip that has a
Wi-Fi transceiver and two Intel Atom processor cores on the same piece of
Devices called “system on a chip,” or SoCs, already are commonplace in
cellphones. Many of them include a key communications device called a baseband
processor alongside a conventional processor that runs application software on
But the RF components that actually modulate and amplify radio waves are
usually kept separate, in part because their signals can interfere with
operations on other parts of the chip, Rattner says.
interference was a key part of the Intel effort, he adds, requiring
collaboration from engineers in its research, development and manufacturing
groups to come up with the right approach.
The results give Intel “great confidence” that it will be able to come up
with true single-chip products with RF components for phones, tablet computers
and other devices where size and power consumption are paramount, says Rattner,
while conceding that such developments are at least several years away.
There’s reason to inject at least a note of skepticism here. A company that
has bet its future on billion-dollar factories and the most advanced production
processes may be expected to think that they are the most efficient way for
producing just about anything.
But many makers of analog chips have effectively, and profitably, done just
the opposite–reducing costs steadily by using older manufacturing recipes,
RF-friendly materials like silicon germanium and factories that were paid off
Intel’s credibility about timing is also subject to question. Rattner’s
predecessor as Intel’s top technologist–Patrick Gelsinger, who is now a senior
executive at EMC–ten years ago made similar statements to kick off an effort he
called Radio Free Intel.
“Those back at the ranch were scratching their heads,” recalls Rattner, who
says Gelsinger was prescient in setting a technical goal but underestimated the
time and effort required. “We spent the better part of the past decade figuring
it all out.”
Besides radio components, Intel is using the event known as ISSCC to present
technical papers in a variety of other areas–particularly chips designed to
sharply reduce power consumption by operating at close to the “threshold
voltage” of transistors, the amount of current needed to turn them on.
Another focus is on a new way for designing components known as
floating-point units, which are involved in handling many mathematics
The approach uses “variable” precision–in some cases reducing the
number of bits to express numbers in scientific calculations–which can actually
lead to more accurate results and save energy and computing time, Rattner says.
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